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Austin-based Singer/Songwriter Patricia Vonne Does Her Holiday Album In Celebration of A Family Tradition


Eight albums in, multi-talented musician/actress Patricia Vonne is back with a new recording. This time it’s her holiday celebration, “My Favorite Holiday" (on her label Bandolera Records). This award-notable filmmaker and two-time SXSW best female vocalist winner released the full album on November 19th, building an audience with its many music videos which can be seen on YouTube.

Vonne’s ode to this special time of the year features 10 original songs and one cover. Joining her in an all-star cast are Rubén Blades, David Grissom, Alex Ruiz, Rosie Flores, Stephen Ferrone on drums (Tom Petty) and Carmine Rojas on bass (David Bowie).

For the San Antonio native, Christmas meant gathering with her parents and nine siblings (including hit film director Robert Rodriguez). Recalls the statuesque performer, “As children, we would perform ‘Haul Out the Holly’ and other Christmas favorites with big candy canes and perform for our family and friends. Another family favorite was the singing of ‘Carol of the Bells,’ which I included on this album to invite the world into our family through music. My sisters recorded from four different cities in three states. I am thrilled to share their voices and this song with the world.”

The album opener, “Santa’s On His Way,” is a pop-flavored kick-off featuring lush piano and orchestral arrangements by Scott Plunkett of Chris Isaak’s band. Originally intended as a one-off single, Vonne says it inspired the full-length album project with producer Rick Del Castillo at the helm. The title track displays Vonne celebrating her inner Brenda Lee with an ebullient pop arrangement featuring Johnny Reno blowing red-hot saxophone. Powered by drummer Thommy Price (Billy Idol, Joan Jett), the ferocious rocker “Old Man Santa!” reveals Vonne’s rocker roots:

“Old man Santa’s cruisin’ down the hill
Used to drive a Chevy now he rides a Coupe de Ville…
Bag full of goodies, guitar on his back.”

The smoky rockabilly number “Santa’s On A Rampage,” features Vonne’s San Antonio sister-in-arms, Rosie Flores (one third of Texicana Mamas with Vonne and Stephanie Urbina Jones) and longtime Chris Isaak sidekick Rowland Salley on bass.

As to less upbeat realities that are also part of the seasonal package, “Alone On Christmas Day” — co-written by Austin ace guitar-slinger David Grissom — envisions the holiday among the homeless. Inspired by Vonne’s own volunteer work with the homeless, the song has what she calls “a Tom Petty feel,” enhanced by Petty’s drummer Stephen Ferrone and David Bowie bassist Carmine Rojas.

vonne-Screen-Shot-2021-12-2Born Patricia Vonne Rodriguez, the 50-something celebrates her Hispanic heritage by adding a bilingual vocal and musical flavor to “My Favorite Holiday” with a song like “Nochebuena.” Co-writers Del Castillo and Alex Ruiz touch upon the divine, the miracle of God and salvation. “Las Posadas” is inspired by Joseph and Mary’s night journey to Bethlehem, and the classic Spanish passion play it inspired. On the track, Vonne is joined by salsa and Latin jazz giant Rubén Blades and the pair put a cumbia spin on the ancient tale. “Cumbia Navidad” is an ebullient, multi-lingual celebration of a San Antonio Christmas. Vonne wrote it to perform at her beloved Holiday River Parade which features floats carrying scores of entertainers (including, in 2019, Vonne herself).

Vonne has always felt doubly blessed because her birthday falls six days before Christmas, and she wants to share that spirit with listeners. With “My Favorite Holiday,” San Antonio’s native daughter brings a gift to the Alamo City and the world.

Q: How do you craft a Christmas song? Where do you begin?

Patricia Vonne Rodriguez: On my Christmas album I started with titles and chose themes like the spanish song "Nochebuena” (Christmas Eve.) "My Favorite Holiday” was inspired by Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”. "Las Posadas” is a popular theme that has many renditions and I wrote my own inviting Ruben Blades as a duet. (Las Posadas is a passion play of the Nativity Journey)

I wove elements from the film “It's A Wonderful Life” into the first track, “Santa’s On His Way,” mentioning “Bailey Park” and “every time you hear a bell ring an angel gets his wings. And on “Alone On Christmas Day” I chose to write about those that don’t have a family to go home to. That song was based on an incredible community in Austin that helps mitigate homelessness and it’s called Community First Village. I volunteered there and brought the idea to David Grissom to write the song with me. I then reached out to Stephen Ferrone (Tom Petty’s drummer for 20 years) and Carmine Rojas (David Bowie’s bass player) and they generously came on board for this great cause.

Q: What determined which musicians played on what songs?

PVR: I had just met Tommy Price in my hometown of San Antonio when I actually had the two last perfect songs for him to play. He’s a legendary ferocious drummer and his style and muscle totally matched the barn-burning energy of “Old Man Santa" and "Santa’s On A Rampage.”

I chose Stephen Ferrone for “Alone on Christmas Day” because David Grissom and I wrote it with a Tom Petty feel. I had met both Ferrone and Carmine Rojas at the Legendary China Club in NYC when I was an 18-year-old coat check girl. So getting them together on a special song is truly a gift to the world. ‘

For “Las Posadas” which is a nativity story celebrated all over Latin America and beyond, Rubén Blades was the perfect choice to sing with me. He surprised me by contributing lyrics in the solo and singing my name. I melted to the floor and wept.

Q: Is there anything special a Christmas song must have?

PVR: Spirit, and a catchy melody would be very cool to get you in the mood. Q: What are your favorite holiday songs?

I absolutely love “Santa Bring My Baby Back” to me because of its ebullience and joy. “With my baby far away, what good is mistletoe “ makes me dance and sing along.

I adore Washington Square Park because it reminds me of those in the service that can’t be home for Christmas. It really is a touching song because not everyone has families to go home to and this song brings this sentiment home.

vonne coverI love “We Need a Little Christmas “ by Jerry Herman because we used to sing it as a family when I was little. That led us to sing “ Carol of the Bells” with my sisters as a tradition which is why I am thrilled it is on the album for the world to share.

I also love “ Washington Square Park” by Chris Isaak and The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride.”

Q: Who are your inspirations in music and life?

PVR: My parents inspire me every day. My dad was a door-to-door salesman for 39 years and my mom worked the night shift as a nurse in order to be home when we got home from school. They sacrificed everything for us.

Musically, everyone from The Stray Cats, Johnny Reno and the Sax Maniacs, Tom Petty, Cruzados, Lone Justice, Pat Benatar, and Rubén Blades!

Q: Recently the legendary Mexican music star Vicente Fernandez died. Do you want to comment on that?

PVR: He was “El Rey de Canción de Mariachi!” He was the music and voice of Mexico that will never be forgotten. He was Elvis, Sinatra and Tony Bennett rolled into one. He will be sorely missed.

Rebecca Hall’s Directorial Debut Film “Passing” Explores the Lives of Two Mixed Race Women in 1920s New York

Director: Rebecca Hall
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård
As the film “Passing” opens, two mixed-race childhood friends run into each other while “passing” as white women shopping in midtown Manhattan. Both are living in middle class adulthood; they become increasingly involved tapping into each other's insecurities. While Irene "Reenie" Redfield [Tessa Thompson] identifies as African-American and is married to a black doctor Brian Redfield [André Holland], Clare Bellew [Ruth Negga] "passes" as white and has married a prejudiced, wealthy white man John Bellew [Alexander Skarsgård] who is unaware of his wife’s origins.
Based on American author Nella Larsen’s novel, — first published in 1929, — it’s set primarily in 1920s Harlem. The story centers on this reunion and their increasing fascination with the practice of "racial passing", — a key element of the novel. Clare’s attempt to pass is the novel’s most important depiction and a catalyst for the tragic events that follow once the enter each other’s circle. Larsen was informed by her own mixed racial heritage and was praised for the book’s provocative narrative. Now celebrated for its complex depiction of race, gender and sexuality, it’s all capably presented in this sensitive and subtle film as well.
In this Q&A conducted with director Rebecca Hall — a veteran actor herself — and cast members Thompson, Negga and Andre Holland, they explore what it took to bring this project to fruition and how it felt about to consider what life was like in those days. New York City is a place where life happens and it shapes who we are today — something that was revealed in this film and poignantly discussed after this preview screening held in the Paris Theater.
Q: When did you realize there’s something here that you wanted to make into this movie?
RH: I remember specifically seeing the book in the window. Then I finished the book, loved it, opened my laptop, and started writing the screenplay. It was suddenly like being possessed. I think that I had freedom to do it because honestly, I didn’t think it would end up like this. Or I talked myself out of it.
Also, I was just struck by the modernity of this: how it speaks to so many aspects of humanity, in this tiny, tiny book. Now it’s not just racial passing, it’s all the ways in which the thing that you think you believe in doesn’t match up with the thing that you want. The ways in which we all put ourselves into containers or let other people put us into containers, and then we’re massively spilling out of them because nobody can be defined by one thing. That is a very contemporary idea.
We have words like intersectionality or something [like that]. I was blown away by that so when I arrived to work, I just thought I wanted it to look a certain way. I came up with ideas that shocked me when [placed] in the movie. I got really attracted to the screenplay, thinking, “I’m going to get into this because I’ll never make it. So it’s fine, this is just for me.” And then it was a 13-year process, maybe not quite 13 years. It was about a six-year process of me getting the nerve to take it out of the drawer, and then another six years of actually trying to get it made, which is normal.
Q: What was one of the early shots that you had in your mind?
tessaRH: Of the feet. Also I had the idea of the meeting between the two of them. I committed self-matching at that scene. I had [that] in my head. I look at her playing the central character, and is she in a place where she was being observed, and you didn’t know why she was hiding from something, to a place where she was taken in this room and feeling safe, and then she’s looking around and suddenly there’s this other person looking right at her.
Q: In an interview you talked about bringing Tessa and Ruth to your house for a weekend before going into production because you felt that it would be imperative to have that time together. So tell me all about that: what did you do?
RH: Well, I’m an actor so I understand rehearsal very much, so I just kidnapped them and said –
Q: Was it like a rehearsal at the house, or was it bonding time connecting everyone?
RH: There were some. You and I sat down and did a lot of work. We’d sit down and go through scenes a lot. Mostly it was just time for the two of them to be together and explore each other’s [thoughts].
Q: Tessa, you said that you were terrified to take on this role. But you did it with such grace and depth, it was a beautiful performance. What ultimately made you say yes, what intrigued you about diving in?
TT: I guess I like being terrified. In the sense that I like to, when I am approaching work, there’s something that is central to the thing that I’m not sure that I can do.
In this case, it had to do with being in the character and also that there was this — so much is expressed, as Rebecca said, with her example of that panning shot of their passage. It focused squarely on Irene’s obsession with staring at her. Without the movie looking away, and looking back, there is no cinematic journey. So Rebecca was able to tease that out, and so I felt very comfortable. If she could do it…
What I was worrying about for myself is, there’s this incredible document in Nella’s words. There was a wealth and a depth of feeling that this woman has inside, and when you don’t have a lot of dialogue to express that, and also in that she’s playing someone that’s quite restrained, the moments when she’s feeling strongly is whenever she’s around this person and that stirs things in her— [which I had to express].
She’s a feeling person. How do you say that without saying that? And that terrified me. And then also other stuff terrified me, but I won’t go into that.
But the easy thing is that she just needs to be really beguiled and blown away by this woman and look at her.
Q: Ruth, in bringing this really complex woman to life, what compelled you to play this woman?
RN: I love the word “haunting”. I love it. I was haunted by this book. I was haunted by these characters, and I think what struck me most is, I never really read a friendship like that:  the full, deep complexity of female friendship with all the usual attractions, and also repelled by one another at the same time, that push and pull. We have all combatted the disease of UJE: the ugliness of it, the jealousy, the envy. I was bewitched by these women.
For me, for Clare, I was so curious about this woman – her intention of living so fully and authentically. It brings to mind a Mary Oliver quote: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Clare, for me, she embraced it fully and deeply. And I guess after reading it, I found – I don’t know, this atmosphere of sense of ending somehow that haunts the book and that lingers way after the final frame.
I think Rebecca shocked us, and that’s a terribly hard thing to do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen film writing that captures the feeling, the emotion, having read it, onscreen, sufficiently.
Q: Had you read the book before anyone suggested you read it?
RN: Yeah, I’d read the book. I’d wanted to work with Rebecca for a long time. We met up in New York and she said she was adapting this, and I [said] I’d do it anytime, anywhere.
Q: André, your character is so complicated and so rich. There are so many scenes that jump out at me when I think of them. But I ask you what I was asking them: what was it that intrigued you about this character, and do you want to explain it to the audience?
AH: This character gave me a chance to explore this world. I think that’s one of my favorite things about this job: getting a chance to learn about men I didn’t know before. I didn’t know about Nedda’s work, I hadn’t read that.
Q: In the dinner table scene, there’s an argument that you have with the other characters. It’s very much of that era, but also very contemporary. Black parents have had these conversations all the time. What was it like preparing for that and diving into that performance?
AH: Well, I was really looking forward to that scene from the very beginning. Which is exciting.
Q: Tessa, how was that exciting for you?
neggaTT: What struck me is just that: how modern it felt. And this was before the events of last summer. But it’s like forever and always in this country, right? I think that’s the negotiation you make as a parent to black children and in particular, I’d say, to black men. So there was that on one hand, and to activate that which would do him a favor even now. And on the other hand, I think the scene has a uniquely important physicality that it felt like we were playing a piece of music together. To me there was a real specificity in rhythm. So that was what I liked.
Something that I really enjoyed about this project is the precision, I think, because of the precision of every angle. If you were off your mark by a little bit or just objectively not in the right place, Rebecca would come and be like, [gestures] “Once again.” But I don’t know — I like that. I didn’t do sports and I’m not into doing anything else. This is just something I like, so I’ll do it right.
RN: You did, you know?
TT: And inside the form is such freedom when you know what the form is. When I was into Shakespeare and the Classics... But [Ruth] knows, go see her in “Macbeth” [on Broadway co-starring with Daniel Craig].
Q: Ruth, you talked about the precision of the technicality of the camera. How did that stretch you as an actor? How did you get that joy of finding freedom?
RN: In order to play you have to have rules because it just tightens everything up. I felt a great comfort and relief in it because I think the way Rebecca works is a very lavish process. We were let in on this. This wasn’t a proletarian office. We knew that there was a goal as we were [performing], and we were recruited. And that’s a lovely thing, I think, about Rebecca, especially in her being an actor as well. There’s a gift in ensuring trust. That’s a lovely thing for an actor to have, a director’s trust, and to let us in on it. We had freedom to discover within the scene, working with Tessa and Andre.
Q: The framing is so beautiful. There is such a precision, and such a beautiful stillness in every shot. How did you arrive at that framing as the visual language of this film?
RH: It’s as I said earlier. An inherent problem in adapting this book for the screen is that if you were unable to show the inside of your protagonist’s mind, it would [belie her reality] because she’s not truthful to herself. That’s the whole point of this story. She doesn’t really know who she is. She’s so bound up in the idea of this respectful, proper, erect life – wife, mother, and everything – that there's no room for her expression of herself.
So this was the bottom of that problem: How do you get you guys in on that? How do you show that? I think the formality of it felt to me, finally, correct, that there should be a way of slowly giving signals to the audience that this person is unreliable, and finding the visual language to do that. You slowly start to see what you are saying or she is saying it, maybe it’s not real. It’s fuzzy, it’s blurry, and you literally use lenses that compressed the image, but were soft on the top and bottom. That creates a sense of her world dissolving around her.
Also, it occured to me what I thought about this novel. The '20s are famous for being loud – the Jazz Age, color, photographs -- and there was something so — this book was so simple and held so much in it because it allows you to do the work. So I couldn’t help thinking about... What's the simplest version of this? And that comes down to shot-by-shot. I didn't want to have to cut away. So let's see how long I can contain the two-shot. Let’s use a mirror if we have to. Let’s play a two-shot in the mirror with that person as well.
That formality also literally puts them in a box, it puts them in this place of restraint — Irene, specifically. It should feel claustrophobic. And, the music is deliberately beautiful, and haunting. It’s deliberate. So I was very specific about everything.
Q: It made us curious as well.
RH: Yes. Correct. Well, she was an exile for most of her life. And that song that you hear all the way through the movie is called “[unclear] Walker Rag.” I heard it when I was doing a rewrite at some point. Not right from the beginning, somewhere in the middle. I remember hearing that piece of music and thinking, "That’s the film." That’s the time, that’s the feeling, and that’s the sensibility, and what we were looking for. If I can make this film sound like how this sounds, then it’s worth it.
Q: And the house [which was used in the film] was a character as well.
RH: Well, the house was pretty bright. I did want the feeling that the house was meaningful. It was meaningful to be there in Harlem, in that house, in a brownstone like that, knowing that these houses and these spaces, and the apartment that’s at the end of the film was a historic building. There were probably parties in the ’20s that took place in that building.
RN: Yeah, I think so. The house, the residence, we learned a lot and we would use the bedroom as the place where we were all sitting.
TT: So we’d all be sitting in this bedroom together. It was a little claustrophobic. Which was helpful for me, because Irene was supposed to feel very claustrophobic. [I would go] “Irene would love this.” But the bathroom was open, and I could go in there.
TT: I was very happy for you except when I had to pee.
RN: And it’s the set you want to work in…
RH: There were things that weren’t right.
RN: I believe that when I’m not working, I’m haunted. I think the bricks, mortar and moulding carry memories. I am living there. All the memories that one would have in Harlem are so vibrant and so, of course, it is its own costume. I love that. So yeah, I definitely felt that. And it was all that for a lot of nothing [in the end].

Halloween Brings New Opportunities to Legendary Director John Carpenter & Wife/Partner Sandy King

Horror films fascinate some people, while they repel others. A classic slasher series such as “Halloween” prompts extreme passions either way. Creating a supernatural menace that’s both relentless and hair-raising but seems that somehow he can be defeated takes a talented and clever creator who can strike fear in the heart and possibilities in the mind.

That is something that a young John Carpenter managed to do and his original film inspired a whole sub-genre — the slasher film — when he created 1978's "Halloween" with nefarious murderer Michael Myers, neighbor to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) who fought him off and survived his killing spree.

After Carpenter made the original movie, he declared he never wanted to make a sequel. Nonetheless, a series of successful films got produced, expanding the franchise but not enhancing it.

carpHe went on to make lots of classics such as “The Fog” (1980), “Escape from New York” (1981), and “Starman” (1984), “The Thing” (1982), “Christine” (1983), “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986), “Prince of Darkness” (1987), and “They Live” (1988).

He also pursued the art of composing music making many of the soundtracks for his films including the signature sound of "Halloween's" theme.

Along the way, he split from his first wife, actress Adrienne Barbeau, and married producer Sandy King in 1990. King produced Carpenter's later films —  “In the Mouth of Madness,” “Village of the Damned,” “Vampires,” and “Ghosts of Mars” and earlier had been the script supervisor for his films “Starman,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Prince of Darkness,” and “They Live” — on was she also associate producer. Then she co-created the comic book series “Asylum,” with Carpenter and a full-scale publishing company, Storm King emerged. In 2018, a direct sequel to the original film was released starring Curtis again, now a senior who was still battling the menace of Myers.

Somehow horror master Jason Blum and veteran director David Gordon Green pitched Carpenter to make this sequel to the original film — after a string of films not connected to the storyline that the 78-year-old director had originally created. The Halloween series captured the relationship between the Myers family (who was in the first film) and Laurie, who had developed a particularly strong connection, which was established in the first film and carried through to the latest.

At this year’s New York Comic Con, the Carpenters’ Storm King Comics was much in evidence with a large booth touting their new releases and back catalog. This Q&A was a result of meeting Sandy there where we arranged that she and John would answer questions by email. They did and here are the results.

Q: How much did you contribute to the storyline of Halloween (2018) and the just-released “Halloween Kills'' (October 15th) to sustain it as a sequel.

JC: First of all, I wasn’t making the sequel. I’ve never directed a sequel to Halloween [and wouldn’t]. Secondly, David Gordon Green and [writer] Danny McBride came up with the stories. I participated in the development of both films. No blessing involved. I scored the movies with my son Cody and godson Daniel.

Q: Jamie Lee Curtis was a teenager when you cast her in the first film, what elements stood out for you to cast her in the lead role?

JC: Jamie was [and is] a talented actress. She was beautiful and charismatic.  When she read for me, she was perfect for the part. I thought she had an inner strength, a will to survive. I used it in the movie.

kingQ: What inspired you to create the bogeyman of Michael Myers? Even though he gets shot dozens of times, he lives and the audience is left with a never-ending fear of him.

JC: Michael Myers was a force of evil. He was less a human being than an element. It was this lack of characterization that made him scary.

Q: The score you’ve done for this and the other Halloween films is very haunting, how did it come about?

JC: [I did it out of] necessity. There was no trial and error involved in making the music for "Halloween." I knew I was going to use this theme I had developed over the years. It was based on my father teaching me 5/4 time.

Q: What are the ingredients for a great horror film?

JC: [That] there are no rules. Horror is the oldest of genres. It was there at the beginning of cinema. Each new generation reinvents horror for its own. We are all afraid. That’s why horror is such a universal genre.

Q: Next year, “Halloween Ends” will be released, how will you be involved with this, and what  do you have something to say about the final film?

JC: I will be executive producer and composer on “Halloween Ends.” I’ll give my opinion, and watch basketball on TV. I want the audience to have a great time when they watch “Halloween Ends.”

Q: Why did you put your name above the title in the original film — was it your way of taking possession of the film?

JC: A conscious choice. I’m taking possession of my movies. Final cut is essential for directors. I urge every young director to fight for their vision.

Q: Horror films have such a powerful impact. Why do you think this one has such a fan base and has resonated with audiences for such a long time?  What aspiring young filmmakers do you think are following in your footsteps?

JC: Because it’s scary. But as to others… There exists an army of young directors dying to tell new stories and strut their stuff. Each director has his own path into the movie business. It’s a tough gig but a road well worth traveling.

Q: What made you two decide to develop your own publishing company?

SK: It was a more natural evolution than it might seem on the surface. People had been trying to put John’s name on comics for years—usually to use his brand to sell substandard “horror” comics without putting much effort into the books. Finally we had a story that lent itself to comics/graphic novel format that truly was a John Carpenter presentation and it just made sense to do it ourselves.

We spent two years researching the art and the business of comics before launching our first book, Asylum, and had a lot of fun doing it. That led to the yearly anthology, Tales For a HalloweeNight, then we branched into our other imprints —  Tales of Science Fiction, Night Terrors, and now our newest line, Storm Kids, for ages 4 to 18.

Q: Will you develop films based on the comics being created, which ones and why?

SK: Possibly. A few of them. Not all comics make good films and not all films make good comics. Our focus with Storm King Comics is to make great comics. That being said, one of the collections is currently being made into a TV series in collaboration with a major studio and network. We’re not at liberty to say which one until they announce it. Another one is likely going to be an animated feature.

Q: Sandy and John — how do you two strike the balance between writing your own ideas and editing others?

talesJC/SK: On the comics front, each year we each write one of the stories in the HalloweeNight anthologies. On other books we occasionally create the concepts and characters and plot lines and turn them over to writers we like to bring to life.  We don’t have time to do everything that is in our heads between movies, tv, podcasts and comics.

Q: How do you two envision the publishing company developing?

SK: About the only thing I can picture us doing that we haven’t is expanding our distribution internationally and with more foreign translations. Right now, we’re in the process of printing our first Spanish translation of our Eisner-nominated children’s book, Stanley’s Ghost. A lot more young families are choosing to raise their children in a bilingual environment and it’s a cute beginner book for them.

Q: You two seem to work together so well — what is the secret to your success together?

SK: Patience and laughter. Also, we’re not competitive with each other. We’re supportive. Always have been.

Q: Is there a difference in the process of creating for film and comics?

SK: It’s all about team-building and supporting the writers and artists in both endeavors. I think that’s what we bring to comic publishing that might be different from other companies. At the time lines are shorter and the risks are less per book, but the risks are all ours. We blow it, it's on us.

Q: What was your primary role in developing this film?

SK: For "Halloween Kills," [I did] nothing but cheerleading and being proud of my family. But for "The Manor," I developed it with the writer/director Axelle Carolyn and Executive Produced it.

Q: What is it you like about making films and don’t like about the process?

SK: I love problem solving the process that takes a script into the reality of shooting a movie. The nuts and bolts of implementing the director’s vision. It’s a giant puzzle to be solved every day at every stage through delivery.  

I don't like the complications of adding 10 additional production layers, lawyers and fail safes to water down the creative process. It becomes a burden.

Sean Penn & Daughter Dylan Explore a Family In Turmoil In “Flag Day”

Flag Day
Director:Sean Penn
Cast: Sean Penn, Dylan Penn

Actor/director/producer/progressive activist Sean Penn has always been a mixed bag to the public, critics and the film industry. Ever since he made his early appearances in such films as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Bad Boys,” he’s often played characters with serious inner conflicts. His ability to encompass both the good and bad of his characters has led him to win various accolades such as 74 award wins and 108 nominations which includes two Oscars

Born in Los Angeles, Sean Justin Penn is the second son of actress Eileen Ryan (née Annucci) and director, actor, and writer Leo Penn. His brothers are musician Michael and the late actor Chris. His father is of Lithuanian Jewish/Russian heritage, and his mother is half Italian and half Irish.

The 60-something has taken strong political stands and voiced his opinions in ways that have abraided some. But he’s also put his views into action such as forming an organization to help survivors of the devastating earthquake in Haiti a few years back.

Besides acting, he has turned to directing including the awards-nominated film, “In The Wild.” Now, he’s turned to not only directing but acting in “Flag Day,” his latest cinematic effort. Besides that difficult task, he’s added another challenge in making the film by casting his 30-year-old daughter Dylan to play his character John Vogel’s daughter Jennifer.

Based on the book “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father's Counterfeit Life” by author Jennifer Vogel, this movie describes, from the daughter’s viewpoint, what it’s like to grow up with a father who can’t cope with conventional life either as a husband or father. Though he tries to stay on the straight-and- narrow, he instead turns to crime while trying to prove to himself and family he’s capable of surviving and thriving.

Given Penn’s passion for this film, he conducted multiple Q&As at various screenings — including this one — to promote it.

Q: You gave Dylan the book when she was 15. Did you have an idea at that moment that you would want her to play Jennifer? Was that in your mind or was it like, this is a great book, I want her to read it?

dylSP: I was first presented with the screenplay before I read Jennifer Vogel’s beautiful memoir. I should say it was Jez Butterworth’s adaptation of the book. I was probably no further in than page 30 [when] Dylan’s face was imprinted on it to me — imprinted in a way that there was no going back. It was either I would make it with her or I wouldn’t make it. This was long before I considered acting and directing in it.

Q: You thought you would just direct? What made you decide that you would also act? It’s your first movie to do both things at the same time, right?

SP: This movie had its own journey, and there were times where I would just direct it, and then there were times where we would just act in it together. But the "we" always had to be "her'' and the "she" was not initially enthusiastic at the idea of doing this movie.

Q: Dylan, Initially you weren't sure that it was something that you wanted to take on. What was your journey?

DP: I loved the story. I read the book when I was 15 and the first time [dad] came to me he said it was basically a "fuck-down.” I always wanted to be in film but I wanted to be behind the camera. I expressed that I wanted to direct and write. I was like 18 when both my parents — on separate occasions — told me that I shouldn’t set foot on a set as a director unless I knew what it's like to act. So that initially got me into auditioning. I did little bit parts here and there, and then it came back around. It felt like [it was] too good of a world to only have half of it. I also had more like 15 years of life experience, almost, to refer to color Jennifer's territory.

Q: You could not have played that part at 15. 

DP: No.

Q: What was the first instance when you felt that your daughter is really good and can do this?

SP: It was around the center block in the kitchen in the house where she and her brother grew up. She would come back from school and tell stories to her mother and I about her day, and embody the characters of those stories. And it was never a kind of mimicry. It was [like] you met the people. You knew who they were. And later when we met one, we knew exactly who that was.

I always knew it, and to take that to somebody coming to work with written lines, hitting marks and all that, I put off that thought altogether, but I was convinced that she would be great.

But it wasn't until she was great, which was the first day of shooting, when one of my crew members looked up after they saw what she did with the first take, and he just said "What the…”

We all knew we were on to something exciting because it's Jennifer's story and to have [Dylan] play it is electric. So what happened at that point when I saw that I was right [I said to myself], "I was?” In other words, as exciting and thrilling as it is, the biggest part of it was relief. It was, “Thank God I didn't set my daughter up for failure." I hadn't thought about that. 

flag posterOne of the things she sometimes leaves out of the story is when she's talking about being reluctant. She was definitely one of these young people who came from the school of thought that it’s actually a ludicrous notion to be an adult playing dress-up as a job. And while she came to have her own respect for it -- which she can talk about -- a formidable respect for what it can be, I think it also is that part of that initial thinking of it as ridiculous that has that quality that is so totally without contrivance. She doesn't come to wink at the audience or to curry favor. She thinks the thoughts and lets you watch her face think them.  It's what every actor strives to do, and I think she does it beautifully. 

Q: How did you go from a "No" to “Sure, Dad, I'd love to carry your movie”?

DP: It was a big step. I mean, he's right. I should have said earlier that once I did these parts here and there and started auditioning and getting rejected, my respect for actors just went through the roof. I realized, “Wow, this is not as ridiculous as I thought it was.” After auditioning for so many bad roles, reading this script again felt like a dream for any actor. So who am I to pass this up? 

Although it was pleasant to work with him, for most children who work professionally with their parents, it could be great or be a disaster.  Fortunately, it was great with Dad. 

Q: About that first day on the set, when did you have the revelation that this is going to work? What was the first scene you did? What was it like for you to step into that role and have your dad behind the camera, but also be in front of the camera playing your dad? 

DP: The first scene we did together was in the Chinese restaurant and I was really nervous that day. It's an emotional scene, and I knew it was going to be really intense — and it was. But as soon as I sat down in our booth and they called, “Action,” I felt so at ease and also felt something that I did not expect: I felt like it was so playful. Obviously, as an actor [my dad] gives so much to play with, so much to react to, and I often say that he allows for that chemistry to play as well. I just had so much fun with him, so as an actor it was the greatest thing you could ask for. 

Q: When you're sitting at that table and looking at your dad at that moment, is there a separation there? 

DP: Rarely. It's always going to be “my dad” at the end of the day. But it's specifically when I saw the scene where I see him kill himself. I hadn't seen that footage until the day of, so that's actually my real reaction. If you can imagine seeing your father look up at the camera and shoot himself in the head, it's a lot. But also, it's her thing because this is Jennifer's story, it's not mine. But yes, I can see my dad through John. 

Q: Sean, you were watching her watch that, what was it like for you?

SP: Watching her watch that scene? There were several instances where I felt that in asking her to go into those emotional places, I should call Child Protective Services on myself. It took me a little while to get comfortable with the fact that she wanted to explore those things as much as any actor is driven to do. 

There was a key moment when she came away from her first meeting with Jennifer Vogel. And while we approached this with Jennifer's encouragement and her acceptance of a lot of poetic license, I think the book, which everyone should read, is a standalone. This [film] is the kind of an expression from aspects of that. But I think that it was very strengthening for Dylan to spend time with Jennifer. I think that among the many ways in which you have a lot of partners as a director to establish the comfort or the confidence of your actors, she was an essential partner in that. 

Q: Did you two ever butt heads? 

SP: I'm going to say yes, because I know if I don't, she will -- this is one time I'm going to get ahead of her on the truth.


DP: Honestly, it wasn't a lot, but we did have a two-hour standoff about whether I would or wouldn't wear mascara for a certain scene. Sounds about right. He won. 

SP: And I won "no mascara" for the scene. 

Q: To try and be truth-telling about someone who was such a liar — how do you respect the truth of the story and how much poetic license do you take?

SP: The funny thing is that whether it's reading the book or Jez's screenplay, as a filmmaker, you're struck with an impression that becomes your interpretation. Now, there are certain processes and movies where you might approach it, for ethical reasons as much as anything else, in really trying to get the facts straight in a very literal way. But this had gone from a faith that Jennifer had in Jez to a faith that Jez and [producer William] Horberg initially had in me. Then it became a kind of family of those supporting the impression that I had. That's the direction we went with, rather than just try to get everything [on screen] as some kind of factual history.

seanQ: And then there’s the music — how did you come to work with such people as Glen Hansard, Eddie Vetter -- his daughter sang the "Father's Daughter" song which is super cool -- and Cat Power? When did you bring them on board?

SP: I had had a great experience working with Eddie Vedder [Pearl Jam’s lead singer] on “Into the Wild” and we had become extremely close friends. Any thing I picked up to be considered by me for directing from that time on, he would be one the first [people to] call and say, "Read this, see if you get a musical impression out of it." 

In this case, he was the closest American voice I knew as a songwriter who could reflect this story. He was also a man, and “Into the Wild” is a reflected subconscious of the male character.

This is a female-generated story -- it has a little yin-yang with the father/daughter so this would not be just one voice, but it should be dominated by a female voice. So Ed did a workshop with Glen Hansard; the two of them songwriting together came up with the beginnings of some of the songs that are here. The idea was that, for no other reason than that he had been my dependable collaborator, I hadn't thought to get any other singer-songwriter. 

I was just thinking about a female vocalist. I listened to all the best, many of whom do write, many of whom don't.  And I listened to people I've heard of and people that other people [told me about]. I couldn't find a voice that felt like the way that she as Jennifer, I felt, would move me. So we did this novel thing: I asked [Jennifer] and she suggested the first one up, Cat Power, and I listened to Cat Power who I never heard before. I said this would be great. 

I called Ed. He had worked with her, known her and called her; he curated the whole thing. And then he brought in his 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, to sing the end-tail song. But Cat ended up writing quite a lot of stuff for the film as well as singing it. 

Q: Okay. What did you two learn about each other? Did you learn anything -- that you can say in polite company?

SP: I think Dylan and I have a lot in common in a lot of ways. We both have a kind of force of will. But most of the experience on this was like you dreamt that you could walk out on the edge of a cliff together and survive, and you wake up and you're on that cliff. So it just affirmed the dream creatively in so many ways. 

As a human being, I don't know if I know her better, or less than I will tomorrow versus the day before yesterday. She's a moving target. I just know I fell in love a long, long time ago, 30 years ago, and it’s a continuum. 

DP: I can't even follow [that]. But he’s right, it just solidified the bond that I already knew we have. This is a really inappropriate parallel, but I don't know what other words to use. It feels like doing a movie with somebody is like going into battle. So I do feel that we survived it together. 

Q: But will you do it again?

DP: I want to reverse the roles [and direct].

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